It will not stop raining in Pittsburgh. Ours has always been a gray and drizzly city, but this feels different. Last year we got nearly 60 inches of rain, more even than in 2004, when the remnants of Hurricane Ivan flooded downtown and many of the little riverfront towns a few miles up the Allegheny River. We had an epidemic of landslides, collapsing roads, and homes getting swallowed by mud.
This year is on pace to match or exceed 2018’s record precipitation. The rains have swept in faster and they fall more heavily. They batter the windows and pool in the streets. They cut grooves in the pavement on the city’s steeper roads and wash gravel and broken asphalt out into the intersections. I have lived in this region for more than 30 years. The weather is different. The seasons have changed.
Travel down the Ohio Valley from the edge of Appalachia into the farmlands of the Midwest, and things are worse. By April, more than one million acres were flooded. There have been 200 more tornadoes than average. There are growing fears of major crop failures, as farmers have been unable to plant in flooded fields. Communities throughout the Mississippi and Missouri river watersheds have been repeatedly inundated. Century-old flood-control infrastructure is failing, and we have very little understanding of the mid- and long-term effects of flooding on municipal infrastructure, nor any federal agency tasked with studying the problem on a national scale.
Climate change conjures images of melting ice, stranded polar bears, and coastal cities drowned by rising oceans, but we are seeing all sorts of feedback loops causing strange and severe weather with increasing frequency all over the country and the world. Warm air holds more moisture than cold air, for example, and creates more precipitation. It used to snow in western Pennsylvania in the winter. I can remember building snowmen with my cousins in Frick Park on Thanksgiving. Now we get a dusting here or there. Once or twice a year we get several inches. Mostly, though, it just rains. And the ground never freezes. And there are landslides in February.
It used to snow in western Pennsylvania in the winter. Now we get a dusting here or there.
There has been a marked shift in the rhetoric of climate-change denial over the last couple of years, as denialists have begun to abandon the pretext that it simply isn’t happening to admitting that it is but proposing that it is either good or fixable, or sometimes both. You’ve begun to see the word “adaptation,” although very little real reckoning with what it will mean to adapt to a world in which the American Midwest can’t produce grain crops and the Atlantic cyclone season never ends.
Even among many Democratic politicians, who will hasten to call themselves “pro-science” and swear that climate change is real, this type of denial creeps in. When someone says a “Green New Deal” is too expensive, that too is denial. An environment that sustains human life is priceless, right? But if it’s going to cost a half a billion dollars just to save the Tidal Basin, what will it cost to build seawalls for New York or to rebuild the entire interior of the country to accommodate the annual floods?
Climate change lends itself to a full-on apocalyptic vision of a scorched and uninhabitable earth, but in reality, plenty of places will remain habitable, and the political crises regarding access to higher land and better drinking water are already with us. Jakarta, a city of 10 million people, is sinking and may soon have to be significantly depopulated. Where will the people go? America and Europe have already walled themselves off against the coming global migrations, and the militarization of borders and creation of “temporary” refugee camps that turn inevitably into permanent slums for a global underclass of stateless peoples are trends that will only accelerate.
But — and this is not meant to be callous, or to wave away the magnitude of potential coming crises — we don’t need to imagine a post-apocalypse of walled enclaves and tens of millions of migratory climate refugees to grasp the direct effect of a human-altered biosphere on our own little lives right now. If anything, conjuring up an End Times becomes a comforting kind of fantasy, because so long as the crack of thunder and flash of divine judgment doesn’t arrive, the emergency is always in the future. Climate change occurs in less than a heartbeat of geologic time, but it still takes place over entire human lifetimes, and 2040, 2050, 2100 are lifetimes away.
On the other hand, your homeowner’s insurance doesn’t cover floods or mudslides. It doesn’t cover sinkholes or earthquakes, the latter of which have become increasingly prevalent due to fracking. The capital budget of your city can’t keep up with the wear and tear on your roads and stormwater systems. The Army Corps of Engineers is unprepared to fix your levees. Unusually wet conditions are killing fruit trees in the northeast. California can’t stop catching on fire. Floods are bad in the Midwest, but East Texas won’t stop flooding either. The U.S. and Canada are fighting over the Northwest Passage. And Russia, China, the U.S., Canada, the UK, and Scandinavian nations are all prepping for a new carbon rush, laying claim to the vast untapped reserves in the de-iced Arctic basin.
Climate change occurs in less than a heartbeat of geologic time, but it still takes place over entire human lifetimes.
It is, in other words, not a singular moment of apocalypse, but an accumulation of individually smaller effects whose interrelatedness is at once observable and hard to pin down. The supercomplexity of our vast natural systems means that making a few modest design changes to our built environments — building some seawalls, adding some sump pumps, using more fireproof materials, doing some regulatory tweaks to change insurance riders — is not going to be enough.
The mark of seriousness in any plan “to address climate change” is not, as the technocrats would tell you, its focus, narrowness, and granular specificity, but rather the opposite: here, for once, is a field that’s begging for a grandiose vision. Within the lifetimes of people who have already been born, there is going to have to be a revolution in human affairs commensurable with the advent of agriculture or the industrial revolution.
And as I pointed out just a couple of weeks ago, there’s no escaping into outer space. The spaceship we’re on is the only one we’re ever going to get.